TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: March 16

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. There are no winners in a currency war, either. Here’s why the U.S. is carrying the burden of the global recovery.

By Mark Gilbert in Bloomberg News

2. Despite slow and censored Internet and the weakest mobile phone penetration in Latin America, Cuba is the land of opportunity for daring tech investors.

By Ramphis Castro in Re/code

3. Anyone with a smartphone can become a mobile environmental monitoring station.

By Brian Handwerk in Smithsonian Magazine

4. Permanent, easily accessible criminal records are holding back too many Americans. It’s time to “ban the box.”

By Ruth Graham in the Boston Globe

5. Autism Village is an app that helps families find autism-friendly businesses.

By Olga Khazan in The Atlantic

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: March 9

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Take a data dive to see how a ring of suburban poverty is appearing around America’s revived cities.

By Luke Juday at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia

2. Don’t worry about Russia giving up on nuclear cooperation and the International Space Station.

By Lisa Saum-Manning in U.S. News & World Report

3. Scientists reverse-engineered social networks to learn how to fight HIV among homeless youth by word of mouth.

By Jessica Leber in Fast Co.Exist

4. A Pyrenees pipeline could weaken Putin’s grip on European energy.

By Paul Ames in Global Post

5. For developmentally disabled kids, the benefits of organized sports are huge.

By Darrin Steele in Quartz

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: February 9

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. A humanitarian intervention for Aleppo could provide a glimmer of hope in Syria.

By Ana Palacio in Project Syndicate

2. The U.S. needs a new Church Committee to strengthen oversight of our intelligence services.

By Michael German at the Brennan Center for Justice

3. A regional force is the wrong approach to fight Boko Haram — and might make things worse.

By Hilary Matfess in Al Jazeera America

4. The mystery of autism might be unlocked by studying the microorganisms in children’s stomachs.

By Ruth Ann Luna at the Baylor College of Medicine

5. Test for HIV and syphilis with an iPhone.

By Tasbeeh Herwees in Good

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Autism

Siblings With Autism Less Similar Than Previously Thought, Study Says

Surprising study has implications for care

The majority of siblings diagnosed with autism do not share the same genetic mutation, according to a new study.

Using whole-genome sequencing technology, scientists looked at the genetic material of 85 families that had two children diagnosed with autism, the New York Times reports. Of those sibling pairs, about 30% shared the same genetic glitch, while roughly 70% did not. Those who shared the same genetic issue had similar habits compared to those who didn’t.

“We anticipated that, more often than not, there would be shared inheritance” said Dr. Stephen Scherer, professor of medicine at the University of Toronto and the project’s research director. “That wasn’t the case.”

Some experts say the study, which appears in the journal Nature Medicine, will likely lead to changes in hospitals, whose staff sometimes study the oldest child with autism to gain insight into the younger child’s diagnosis. Hospitals also use genetic profiles to advise parents about the likelihood of having another child with the same diagnosis.

“This study makes us step back and realize we’re not necessarily going to get as much predictive value out of genetic mapping as we thought,” Helen Tager-Flusberg, a Boston University developmental neuroscientist who didn’t work on the study, told the Times.

[NYT]

TIME Developmental Disorders

Parents May Be Able to Lower Kids’ Autism Risk

Boy (7-9), rear view, close-up
Sean Justice—Getty Images

With the help of videos and trained therapists, parents of at-risk kids may eventually help their toddlers to avoid an autism diagnosis

Autism experts still disagree over a lot of things about the developmental disorder, but there is one idea that unites most of them — that the earlier the condition can be diagnosed, and the sooner interventions, from medications to behavioral therapies, can be tried, the more likely that child will be to develop normally.

The latest research, published Wednesday in the journal Lancet Psychiatry, pushes this idea even further by intervening with one of the youngest group of babies yet — those who are 7 months to 10 months old. Jonathan Green from the University of Manchester, in England, and his colleagues say that teaching parents to get more in tune with the signals coming from infants who are at high risk of developing autism can change their babies’ behavior and shift them toward a pattern of more normal development.

MORE: Autism Symptoms Disappeared With Behavioral Therapy in Babies

The scientists focused on a group of 54 families with at least one autistic child. About 20% of siblings of autistic children end up developing the disorder themselves, so Green and his team randomly assigned parents of these babies to either receive a new parent-training program or to get no additional intervention at all. While previous studies have also looked at such parenting programs, most have focused on toddlers once they have been diagnosed with autism, which generally occurs around age 3.

During the training sessions, which occurred over five months, a therapist visited the home and videotaped parents interacting with their infants and then analyzed the behaviors. Rather than assuming the babies would make sounds or fidget if they wanted something, parents were asked to pay close attention to the signs their infants were providing, and find ways to recognize and respond to them so the babies would be more likely to engage and interact with their parents rather than turn away. After at least six such sessions, the infants of parents who did this showed improvements in their ability to pay attention, as well as better flexibility in shifting their attention from one object to another. Presumably the plasticity, or flexibility of the developing brain, especially in the first year of life, is making it possible to redirect some of the processes that may be veering toward autism.

MORE: How Brain Waves May Be the Clue to Diagnosing Autism

“Taken together, we think all of these improvements across different areas of measurement suggest that we improved risk markers for autism at this age,” Green said during a news conference discussing the findings. “Therefore logically we can say that we potentially lowered the risk of later autism development in these infants. At this point we think the results are promising.”

He stressed that the babies have not been tested yet for autism, which will occur when they are around 3 years old, but that the changes he and his team saw strongly suggest that the path to autism may have been interrupted, or at least suppressed in some way. “What we hope is to eventually demonstrate that by changing something critical in the environment, that we can push the organic brain-development process, the neurocognitive process, back on a typical trajectory,” says Tony Charman, a professor of psychology at King’s College London and one of the co-authors. “That’s the theoretical hope.”

MORE: Major Autism Studies Identify Dozens of Contributing Genes

The findings aren’t the first to show that intervening at such an early age with high-risk babies can potentially lower their chances of developing autism. In 2014, researchers at the University of California, Davis, tested an intensive parenting model in which parents engaged in intensive, focused play with their infants who were 6 months old, and achieved similarly encouraging results. In that study, the infants even showed brain changes that suggested their cognitive processes were normalizing to look more like those of children unaffected by autism. In Green’s study, they also saw evidence that the infants’ ability to shift attention improved after the parenting sessions to look more like those at low risk of developing autism.

MORE: Behavior Therapy Normalizes Brains of Autistic Children

Green said that the findings need to be repeated with dozens more families, but he’s encouraged by the initial success. “These parents need to have enhanced skills to deal with some of the biological vulnerability they are faced with in their children,” he said. “There are great advantages to parent-mediated interventions of this kind; once the parents are skilled up in this way, the therapy can go on 24-7 at home. It’s important to intervene throughout childhood.”

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

This May Explain the Rise in Autism Diagnoses

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Getty Images

A new study suggests changes in diagnostic rules have caused increases in autism cases

The number of children diagnosed with autism has ballooned in recent years, but the reason for the increase is hotly debated. Some argue autism results when rare gene mutations are triggered by environmental factors like pollution, certain chemicals or even parental age. Others say it’s due to the fact that we’ve simply gotten much better at diagnosing it. Now, a large new study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics suggests the primary cause of the increase of autism spectrum disorder is actually due to changes in how the disease is diagnosed.

“This study is important because it shows a large part of the increase has nothing to do with the environment, but rather administrative decisions,” says study author Stefan Hansen of Aarhus University in Denmark.

The researchers followed 677,915 Danish children born between 1980 and 1991 and tracked them until they either had an autism diagnosis or reached the study end date of Dec. 31, 2011. Hansen and his team looked specifically at changes that occurred before and after the year 1994, when criteria for psychiatric diagnoses changed in Denmark so that autism became a spectrum of disorders, broadening the criteria for diagnosis. The researchers found significantly more children were diagnosed with autism in 1995 and on, and the team was able to determine that 60% of the increase could be attributed to these criteria changes.

“I am not saying it explains everything,” says Hansen. “There’s the remaining 40%, so we shouldn’t stop here.” That 40% is important if researchers want to understand all the contributing factors to the disease he says.

While Hansen’s findings focused specifically on diagnostic criteria changes in Denmark, other countries, including the U.S., have seen similar changes in the diagnosis of psychological and brain-development disorders.

In May 2013, the American Psychiatric Association published new guidelines for diagnosing autism spectrum disorders in what’s casually referred to as the “psychiatry bible”—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Previously, children needed to meet six of 12 criteria points to be diagnosed with one type of autism-related disorder like Asperger’s disorder or childhood disintegrative disorder. Now, the disorders fall under the single category of “autism spectrum disorders,” and the criteria needed for a diagnosis is much more specific.

Some advocacy groups like Autism Speaks were concerned the changes would mean some people wouldn’t get care, with some research suggesting that a small but significant minority of kids diagnosed with autism would not qualify under the new criteria. “Our concern has been that the constricting of the criteria would in fact artificially reduce the prevalence of autism,” says Michael Rosanoff director of public health research at Autism Speaks. “The DSM-5 has not been in play for long enough and there’s ongoing research looking at how prevalence is changing and access to services. Time will really tell.”

Rosanoff and this study’s researcher Hansen agree that more research is needed to understand what other factors may contribute to the rise in autism cases worldwide. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about one in 68 U.S. kids is on the autism spectrum, which is 30% higher than estimates from as recent as 2012. “Some of this has to do with increasing public awareness,” says Hansen. “As people become more aware of the term autism over time, it’s causing parents to have their kids be examined more often.”

The CDC announced on Jan. 2 that over the next four years, it will invest over $20 million to increase tracking of children with autism spectrum disorder so that the U.S. can better understand what impacts the prevalence of autism here. With better monitoring worldwide, the hope is scientific communities and families affected by autism will better understand more about the disorder’s emergence.

Read next: Most Cancer Is Beyond Your Control, Breakthrough Study Finds

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: December 19

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. America needs a new testament of hope: “Demanding that we trade confusion and bewilderment for a fight for change that only hope and radical optimism can sustain.”

By Darren Walker in Human Parts on Medium

2. Data Integrity Unit: A team of detectives and data analysts is boosting the accuracy of crime statistics in Los Angeles.

By Joel Rubin and Ben Post in the Los Angeles Times

3. This remarkable community gives autistic children a connection inside the world of Minecraft — and might save their lives.

By Charlie Warzel in BuzzFeed

4. Experts are debating whether artificial intelligence is a threat to humanity. It’s very possible that machines with far less intelligence will cause us harm.

By Mark Bishop in New Scientist

5. The Innovative State: Governments should make markets, not just fix them.

By Mariana Mazzucato in Foreign Affairs

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Autism

How Brain Scans Can Diagnose Autism With 97% Accuracy

brain scan fmri mri
Getty Images

Thinking about social interactions reveals brain patterns indicative of autism

Right now, diagnosing disorders like autism relies heavily on interviews and behavioral observations. But new research published in PLoS One shows that a much more objective measure—reading a person’s thoughts through an fMRI brain scan—might be able to diagnose autism with close to perfect accuracy.

Lead study author Marcel Just, PhD, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University, and his team performed fMRI scans on 17 young adults with high-functioning autism and 17 people without autism while they thought about a range of different social interactions, like “hug,” “humiliate,” “kick” and “adore.” The researchers used machine-learning techniques to measure the activation in 135 tiny pieces of the brain, each the size of a peppercorn, and analyzed how the activation levels formed a pattern. That pattern, Just says, is amazingly similar across people. “When you think about a house or a chair or a banana while you’re in the scanner, I can tell which one you’re thinking about,” he says.

So great was the difference between the two groups that the researchers could identify whether a brain was autistic or neurotypical in 33 out of 34 of the participants—that’s 97% accuracy—just by looking at a certain fMRI activation pattern. “There was an area associated with the representation of self that did not activate in people with autism,” Just says. “When they thought about hugging or adoring or persuading or hating, they thought about it like somebody watching a play or reading a dictionary definition. They didn’t think of it as it applied to them.” This suggests that in autism, the representation of the self is altered, which researchers have known for many years, Just says. “But this is the first time that anybody’s used that to diagnose autism looking at brain activation.”

Just says his research suggests there could be a new way of diagnosing and understanding certain illnesses and disorders. “If you know what kinds of thoughts are typically disordered in a given psychiatric illness, you could ask a person to think about them and see whether their thoughts are disordered or altered from neurotypical people,” he says.

TIME celebrities

Jerry Seinfeld Says He Is Not on the Autism Spectrum After All

Jerry Seinfeld
Kevin Wolf—AP Jerry Seinfeld pauses as he is interviewed on the red carpet at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, Oct. 19, 2014, in Washington.

"I’m not on the spectrum”

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld has backtracked on recent comments he made stating that he was on the autism spectrum.

In an interview with Access Hollywood, Seinfeld said he does not fall on the spectrum, contrary to an interview with NBC a few weeks prior in which he said he did.

“I don’t have autism, I’m not on the spectrum,” the Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee star said Wednesday. “I was just watching a play about it, and … I related to it on some level.”

The comedian was commended by members of the autism community after he told NBC’s Brian Williams in early November that he might be autistic. “I think in a very drawn-out scale, I think I’m on the spectrum,” he said, adding that he didn’t see being on the spectrum as dysfunctional but merely an “alternative mind-set.”

TIME Autism

Major Autism Studies Identify Dozens of Contributing Genes

Researchers collaborate on two large studies identifying the genetic basis of autism

Two new studies exploring the genetic basis of autism tie mutations in hundreds of genes to the disease.

Several teams of researchers collaborated on the studies, both published in the journal Nature, and found that about 60 of the genes are considered “high confidence,” meaning there’s a 90% chance that mutations within those genes contribute to risk for autism. Both studies show through genomic sequencing that many of these mutations are de novo, meaning that parents do not have the gene mutation, but they present spontaneously just before a child is conceived in either the sperm or egg.

It’s long been believed that autism is genetic, but a lack of large studies and advanced genomic sequencing has precluded any sort of consensus about what genes might be at play. But in the last couple years, scientists have been able to look at the genetic mutations in hundreds of people with autism and identify genes that likely factor into a child’s development of the disorder. In the two new studies, scientists were able to expand their work and look at thousands of people.

In one of the studies, several institutions used data from the Simons Simplex Collection (SSC), which is a collection of DNA samples from 3,000 families. In each of the families, one individual had autism. The researchers compared the gene sequences of the individual with autism to their unaffected family members. After analysis, they estimated that de novo mutations contribute to autism in at least 27% of families, where only one member has the disorder.

The other study, by researchers at 37 different institutions as part of the Autism Sequencing Consortium, looked at 14,000 DNA samples of parents with affected children. It found 33 genes the researchers say definitely increase risk for autism, should there be a mutation.

Even though there may be hundreds or even thousands of genes that contribute to a child’s risk of developing autism, the researchers on both studies found that the mutations appear to converge on a much smaller number of biological functions, like nerve-cell communication or proteins known to cause inherited disability. “In my view, the real importance of these studies is not diagnosis, and it’s not figuring out exactly what percentage of people have de novo mutations, it’s about laying the foundation to transform the understanding of the biological mechanisms of autism,” says Dr. Matthew State, chair of the psychiatry department at University of California, San Francisco and a co-leader of the SSC study, as well as a senior participant on the other study.

State doesn’t believe that the findings will mean that families will one day get their genomes sequenced to spot hundreds of possible mutations. Instead, they could lay the groundwork for discovering how autism develops, and what potential treatments, or even drugs, could help fight it.

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